UH Hilo researchers partner with Puakō community to improve human and coral reef health

UH Hilo marine scientists and students collaborate with the local community to understand pollution threats and develop effective conservation programs at Puakō.

By Jaysen Niedermeyer.

Group of five student researchers on the beach holding sampling equipment, standing for group photo.
With guidance from Leilani Abaya (at left), who is a graduate student in the UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science program, UH Hilo PIPES summer 2015 interns collect seaweed and water samples along the Puakō coastline for detection of sewage pollution. (l-r) Abaya, Devon Aguiar, Byran Tonga, and Jazmine Panelo, who are all majoring in marine science at UH Hilo, and Belytza Velez from the University of Puerto Rico.
Tracy Wiegner
Tracy Wiegner

For conservation efforts to be effective and long lasting, partnerships between local communities and researchers are necessary, says Tracy Wiegner, professor of marine science at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who is part of a research team studying ocean water quality in South Kohala on Hawai‘i Island. In particular, she says, local communities must see a need for conservation activities and desire for them to occur. It is crucial that they participate in developing these projects to meet their community’s desired outcomes, and are committed to the efforts required for long-term success.

Steven Colbert
Steven Colbert

For a long time, these types of partnerships were overlooked by university and state and federal agencies, but they are now recognized as essential for any conservation project to be successful.

Wiegner is working on this new type of community-researcher partnership in collaboration with Steve Colbert, assistant professor of marine science, and Jim Beets, professor of marine science. The research team is investigating sewage pollution in nearshore waters off Puakō, an ocean-side community in South Kohala, Hawai‘i Island.

Jim Beets
Jim Beets

The project began in 2013 when the coordinator for the South Kohala Conservation Action Plan, Sierra Tobiason, a UH Hilo marine science alumna and extension agent with UH Sea Grant, contacted Wiegner on behalf of the Puakō Community Association.

“The first step of the project was to document that there was a sewage pollution problem,” Wiegner explains.

Documentation is essential to establish that a problem exists, she says, and it allows the community to decide, first, if they want to do something about it, and second, to investigate potential solutions.

Wiegner, her collaborators, and students are documenting the presence of sewage through bacterial, seaweed, and water quality measurements.

Research team stands for photo with community members. It's at night and the lighting is not good.
Meeting with the Puakō Community Association (PCA) in November 2014. From left to right, (front row): Sierra Tobiason (UH Sea Grant), Tracy Wiegner (UH Hilo), Erica Perez (Coral Reef Alliance), Kaile`a Carlson (UH-Hilo), Leilani Abaya (UH-Hilo), Wes Crile (Coral Reef Alliance), (back row) Steve Colbert (UH Hilo), and Jim Beets (UH-Hilo). Photo is from the Coral Reef Alliance letter included in the PCA January 2015 newsletter.

Colbert is leading the dye tracer studies which demonstrate the connectivity between homes and the nearshore waters. Beets is examining the current conditions of Puakō’s coral reefs and if there are any impacts of sewage.


To date, results from the project demonstrate that waste from homes in Puakō is present in the nearshore waters. The most telling piece of the research is results from the dye tracer studies where dye was washed down sinks or added to cesspools. Colbert detected the dye in 72 hours in seeps along the shoreline in front of the houses. Wiegner says these results “really demonstrate the connection between the homes and the nearshore waters. You couldn’t ask for more concrete evidence than that.”

Two women collect water sample via a large vertical pipe system.
Collecting groundwater samples from a well in Puakō are Leilani Abaya, UH Hilo marine science alumni and Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science graduate student, and Kaile‘a Carlson, project technician, UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program alumna.

Other results have shown that the groundwater upslope of Puakō has much lower nutrient concentrations than the groundwater that enters the ocean. This suggests that there is some source of nutrients at Puakō, possibly sewage.

Coincidentally, nearshore seaweed at Puakō has nitrogen values similar to those of sewage. Together, these data suggest that indeed these extra nutrients are from human waste.

Research this summer will further examine how far offshore the sewage can be detected and whether it is coming up through the reef and directly impacting coral.

Collaboration among scientists

Documenting the sewage pollution issue from every angle to obtain the most comprehensive picture of the problem requires many people and organizations to work collaboratively.

In addition to the Puakō community, Wiegner and her collaborators work with The Nature Conservancy, Coral Reef Alliance, and Cornell University.

“The different research groups are collecting information on similar parameters, and so, we’re combining our data sets to have the most holistic picture of where the pollution hot spots are located,” says Wiegner. “A project of this scale would not be possible for one group to accomplish.”

Applied learning

Devon Aguiar and Serina Kiili collect water samples at the shore.
Collecting water samples along the Puakō shoreline for fecal indicator bacteria analysis are (l-r) Devon Aguiar, UH Hilo marine science undergraduate and UH Mānoa C-MORE trainee, and Serina Kiili, UH Hilo marine science undergraduate and EPA fellow.

This project also has provided undergraduate and graduate students with research experience.

Ten undergraduate students have been involved to date, six UH Hilo Pacific Internships Program for Exploring Science (PIPES) interns, two UH Mānoa Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education trainees, one UH Hilo marine science major working on a senior thesis project, and one U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fellow. One graduate student in the UH Hilo Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program is working on this project as part of her master of science degree.

Group of students collect samples on rocky shore.
With guidance from UH Hilo graduate student Leilani Abaya (orange shirt), UH Hilo PIPES summer 2015 interns collect seaweed and water samples along the Puakō coastline for detection of sewage pollution (l-r) Devon Aguiar, Jazmine Panelo, and Byran Tonga are UH Hilo marine science undergraduates, and Belytza Velez is from the University of Puerto Rico.
Two students: one holds up samples collected in a baggie and the other holds the clipboard for recording findings. Ocean in background.
UH Hilo PIPES summer 2015 interns collect seaweed samples along the Puakō coastline for detection of sewage pollution. (l-r) Belytza Velez from the University of Puerto Rico, and Byran Tonga from the UH Hilo marine science program.

This large of number of undergraduate student researchers on one project at UH Hilo is unusual, especially given that the project is barely a year old. For students, participating in a project like this provides them with real world experience: they have learned to make surface water quality maps, traditional microbial techniques, water-sampling in the field, and writing and presenting scientific findings.

One student, Leilani Abaya, even had the opportunity to present her findings for this project in Spain this year at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) meeting, where she received the best student presentation award.

Focus on the community

With the data that this UH Hilo team collected, in addition to those of their collaborators, they have demonstrated that sewage is present in nearshore waters at Puakō. The Coral Reef Alliance, a non-profit organization, is now investigating options available for the Puakō Community to pursue to improve their coastal water quality. A feasibility study on these options will be presented to the community in the next few months.

The coconut wireless has spread word about this project island wide, and other water-front communities, like Kapoho and Keaukaha, are interested in having these research groups work with them on water issues that also face. The overall goal of this project and future ones is to improve water quality conditions, making coastal waters safer for recreational users, and less polluted for healthy and more resilient coral reefs.

Field photos courtesy of Tracy Wiegner.  


About the author of this story: Jaysen Niedermeyer recently graduated from UH Hilo with a bachelor of science in marine science. While an undergraduate, he was a photographer for UH Hilo Stories for part of the spring 2015 semester.